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3D Printing is Slowly Taking Off

February 8, 2013

It seems that 3D printing is not one of those technologies that takes the world by storm like the smartphone, but more like a digital camera, slowly getting better and better until it eventually takes over. Maybe 3D printing will never be the answer for every manufacturing need, but there are an expanding number of applications where it can do really well. We’ll highlight two 3D printing advances that have long term implications.

The first is 3D printing of whole buildings. Sounds like science fiction, right? But this is what designer Enrico Dini claimed to be able to do with his D-shape printer back in 2010 (http://inhabitat.com/3-d-printer-creates-entire-buildings-from-solid-rock/). It is hard to know how practical this will be in future and it seems that Dini is thinking about the problem of making buildings on the moon out of moon rock.

printer3

 

Here is a more recent picture of Dini and one of his “buildings” but one gets the sense that this is still a long way from prime-time. In principle, through, 3D printing of buildings sounds like a great idea.
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If you have ever seen a whole tract of housing being constructed at the same time you will appreciate what an assembly line process it is. First the diggers, then pouring the foundations, then the carpenters, then the plumbers, then the electricians, then the bricklayers. Ok, well I may not have it in exactly the right order, but you get the idea. Given that there is already a high degree of “programming” in construction it wouldn’t surprise me if 3D printing had a role to play, and particularly if we are prepared to make some compromises in what the building looks like (Dini’s technology makes curved buildings).
While we might still be some way from 3-D printing of buildings on a large scale, 3-D printing in medicine is actually here and being used. A good example was a jaw transplant in the Netherlands last June where an 83 year old patient received a jaw transplant. The twist in this case was that the jaw had been 3-D printed.
 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16907104).
“The patient involved had developed a chronic bone infection. Doctors believed reconstructive surgery would have been risky because of her age and so opted for the new technology.”
3-D printing is also being explored as a way to build new bone (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15963467). The idea is to use 3-D printing to create custom scaffolds on which new bone can be built by the body.
One final example of 3-D printing in medicine that we will cite here is the construction of artificial blood vessels on a 3D printer to assist in transplants of lab-created organs (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-14946808).
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And it is not just construction and medicine. 3-D printing has also been touted as a threat to mass production in manufacturing (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14282091).
“It could make off-shore manufacturing half way round the world far less cost effective than doing it at home, if users can get the part they need printed off just round the corner at a 3D print shop on the high street.

“Rather than stockpile spare parts and components in locations all over the world,” he argues, “the designs could be costlessly stored in virtual computer warehouses waiting to be printed locally when required.”

I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of having local craftspeople and designers churning out products on demand and down the street. Right now we are shipping raw materials halfway around the world and then shipping finished goods back again. It seems like a lot of waste.
It’s clear that 3-D printing is currently a technology that is being driven by many diverse applications. Maybe eventually it will lead to a revolution in housing construction, or to maker communities of designers and craftsmen who build local products on demand from designs stored in computers. Maybe soon every woman will be able to wear her own unique designed dress. But each of the applications tends to use a different kind of 3-D printing form factor and technology. So expect to say more incremental gains rather than revolutionary advances as 3-D printing scales up.
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